I wrote the other day about not finding any pleasure in the misfortunes of others, even if those people are horrible. But of course some people do, especially when the people are especially horrible. Take the rapist Harvey Weinstein: news that he had tested positive for coronavirus caused much merriment online and off; I saw a comedy show last night in which the comedian chuckled that Weinstein now knew what it meant to have something inside his body without consent.
It’s a good joke, but the wider sentiment isn’t so funny. As Imani writes on Crutchesandspice.com, there’s an underlying ableism in the reaction to various famous people contracting coronavirus: it portrays the virus as a karmic force that punishes the wicked and the undeserving.
COVID19, like any other disability, disease or illness, doesn’t have a moral compass and by projecting one onto the virus, people are subtly saying that those who also contract it [deserve to get it].
Instead of chortling at Weinstein’s misfortune, perhaps we should focus instead on the fact that coronavirus could have horrific effects in prisons -– it could have a death rate much higher than in the wider population. Prisoners tend to be older and have poorer health than the rest of us. No matter what those prisoners may have been convicted of, none of them deserves the death penalty.
And nor does anybody else.
Communicable diseases aren’t discerning. COVID19 wants lungs, that’s its only M.O. No one deserves this virus—not even those you hate.
Viruses don’t separate people into the righteous and the damned, sparing the good and judging the wicked. But some powerful people do believe that there is a hierarchy here, that some people do deserve to catch coronavirus and that others don’t. And sometimes those people say the quiet bit out loud.
There was a telling moment on Sky News this morning when the Tory politician Damian Green said that Boris Johnson having coronavirus demonstrated that “even intelligent people trying to do the right thing” can catch it.
Leaving aside the fact that Boris Johnson clearly wasn’t doing the right thing – he was boasting about shaking coronavirus patients’ hands the other week and hasn’t been practicing the distancing recommended to reduce risk – that “even” is telling: even people who don’t deserve it can catch it.
This isn’t new, of course. The concept of the “undeserving” has been with us for hundreds of years – the idea of the “undeserving poor” was quite the topic in the 1800s – and it is regularly trotted out by right-wing press and politicians. We saw it most recently when Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that the 72 people who died in the Grenfell fire did so because they weren’t as clever as him. And it’s back with a bang during the pandemic, weaponised by people who believe some lives – their lives – matter more than others.
In the US, as Imani notes, “The national narrative veered hard right and went from ‘we need to do all we can to flatten the curve’ to ‘maybe we should let the virus run its course and let disabled and elderly die to save the economy.'”
Coronavirus does not discriminate, and neither should we. We should be particularly alert for people in power who want to divide us into the good and the bad, the righteous and the damned, the deserving and the undeserving. Because you can be sure that their definition of “undeserving” never, ever means people like them.